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Creating Meaningful Funeral Ceremonies
A Guide for Families
By Alan D. Wolfelt
Center for Loss and Life TransitionCopyright © 2011 Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.
All rights reserved.
Planning a Funeral is a Privilege
As you consider the funeral, try to remember that planning the funeral of someone you love is not a burden, but a privilege. Think of the funeral as a gift to the person who died. It is your chance to think about and express the value of the life that was lived. It is also your chance to say hello on the pathway to goodbye!
This is not to deny your need to mourn and to embrace painful feelings of grief in the coming days. You may feel deep sadness as you plan this funeral and begin to acknowledge the reality of the death. But when all is said and done, you will also feel deep satisfaction that you have helped plan a meaningful tribute to someone who has meant a lot to you.
Making The Initial Decisions
"When we pause to discover the sacredness in life and death through the use of ceremony, we are reborn, renewed, transformed."
— Alan Wolfelt
Having A Family Meeting
It is often helpful to have a private family meeting before going in to see the funeral director. This can be a time for expressing your grief together as well as a time for some initial decision-making.
Find a place free of interruptions and sit down together. You might use this planning guide to discuss the different types of services available to your family. Try as best you can to include everyone in the discussion. No one should feel left out.
Also remember that even though you as family members are feeling drained, now is a time to strive for family unity. Try to pull together and consider the needs of all family members and friends. Don't always choose the "easy" things; instead, plan to include the elements of funeral ceremonies that will ultimately help all of you reconcile yourself to this death.
As you begin to discuss service options, you may be faced with the conflict of honoring the wishes of the person who has died as well as your own wishes as survivors. While it is natural to want to meet the requests of the person who died, do consider changes or embellishments that will be helpful to your family. Remember — funerals are for the living and if you have a need, now is the time to express it.
"A man's dying is more the survivors' affair than his own."
— Thomas Mann
Choosing a Funeral Home
The funeral home and its staff play a critical role in the planning and carrying out of a meaningful funeral. After all, they are the people with training and expertise and you will rely on them in the next several days. Their advice, their compassion, their attention to detail and their willingness to personalize THIS ceremony will greatly influence the funeral you end up with.
There are differences among funeral homes. Some are very good at helping families and some aren't so good. Some are open to new ideas and to adding unique, personalized touches in honor of the person who died — and some aren't.
So, which funeral home will you use? Because you probably have so little time (and even less energy) right now, it's unreasonable to expect you to visit and interview several funeral homes before selecting one. (If you have the time and energy, by all means, do.) But you can read over and consider the following list of questions before deciding. You can also phone local friends, family, neighbors, and clergy and ask for their recommendations.
What is the reputation of this funeral home? Have you talked with other families who have used their services? What do they have to say?
Which funeral home has your family used in the past? Did you have a meaningful experience and receive good service and respect from the staff? Does the funeral home have a true commitment to the families it serves?
Do you already know someone on the staff at a funeral home? If so, could he or she help ensure that you will receive excellent service?
Where is the funeral home located? Is it in a convenient location? What is the facility like? Is it clean and well-kept? Is the decor a good match for the tastes of your family? (If you are using another location for the visitation and ceremony, such as a church, these questions may not apply to you.)
Does the funeral home provide services beyond the funeral itself? Do they provide grief education and support materials? Can the funeral home refer you and your family for additional services you might want and need?
Is the funeral home willing to openly discuss costs? Do they provide itemized or package pricing? Can they provide you with a description of the services you will receive? (Note that the Federal Trade Commission requires that all funeral homes provide itemized pricing information on a general price list so that customers can compare prices. Do not hesitate to ask to review the funeral home's general price list and ask them to clarify any questions you may have.)
Keep in mind that the funeral you have is essentially a statement your family makes to the community at large: "Someone precious to us has died. We are in grief and invite you to join us in remembering a life and supporting each other." Ask yourself: Will this funeral home help me create a service unique to our needs and values?
Notes on local funeral homes (jot down phone numbers, too)
________________________________________ ________________________________________ ________________________________________ ________________________________________ ________________________________________
Working With Your Funeral Director
Every bit as important as the funeral home you choose is the specific funeral director who will help you with the arrangements and service details.
What makes an excellent funeral director? He or she should be able to provide you the information, knowledge and counsel you need to plan a funeral that will meet your family's needs. The funeral director you work with should also be genuine, warm, and caring. He or she should be capable of helping facilitate (which literally means "to make easier") a meaningful ceremony for you and your family.
An excellent funeral director will have empathy for how difficult and draining arranging a funeral can be for you and your family. It is here that his or her genuine caring and sensitivity should shine through.
Does the funeral director listen and respect your unique needs? Does he or she encourage you to be creative and offer suggestions on how to personalize the service? Does the funeral director have the desire and ability to connect with you and your family? Is he or she patient and willing to take as much time as you need to plan and carry out a meaningful service?
If you so choose, will the funeral director allow you to help care for the body of the person you have loved? Some families, for example, take great comfort in dressing the body or doing the make-up or fixing the hair. If this is important to you, ask the funeral director if this is possible. If that is not something you care to do, that is okay, too.
If you are certain that the funeral director is a sincere, knowledgeable and compassionate person who has your family's best interests in mind, then you need look no further. On the other hand, if you are not comfortable working with this particular funeral director, do not hesitate to ask for someone else; many funeral homes have two or three funeral directors on staff. If you have a preference for working with a female or a male funeral director, let this be known to the funeral home. Their job is to help meet your expectations and exceed them whenever possible.
If time allows, visit the funeral home and talk to the director you will be working with. Remember — it is your choice and it is an important one! Don't settle; find a funeral director and funeral home that truly want to help you and your family. Treat your funeral director with respect and he or she will likely respond in kind. However, while you should maintain respect and express gratitude for the help you receive, remember to insist that the needs and values of your family are the most important.
Your Funeral Director
Name_____________________________________________________________ Funeral Home________________________________________ Phone number__________________ Cell phone number________________ Notes _________________________________________________________________ _________________________________________________________________ _________________________________________________________________ _________________________________________________________________
The Arrangement Conference with Your Funeral Director
You may have already scheduled a time to meet with your funeral director to help you plan the funeral. This meeting is called the "arrangement conference." During the arrangement conference, the funeral director will gather important information about the person who died and help you make funeral choices. Reading this resource and filling in some of the blanks before the arrangement conference will help you in both arranging for and carrying out a purposeful funeral.
What to Bring to the Arrangement Conference
_____ A photo for the obituary (although not all newspapers will print photos).
Something fairly recent is most appropriate; a clear "head and shoulders" shot is best, though your newspaper can crop or enlarge almost any photo. The photo can be color or black and white.
_____Discharge papers if the person who died was a veteran and you would like veteran's honors at the funeral.
_____ Clothing for the person who died.
Often families choose a nice suit for a man or a nice dress for a woman, though anything that reflects the tastes and personality of the person who died is appropriate. Include undergarments and a pair of socks. Shoes are not needed but are sometimes placed alongside the body. Ask your funeral director for advice if you're unsure about clothing.
_____ Your desire to create a personalized, meaningful ceremony!
If you and your family come to the arrangement conference with a true desire to plan a loving tribute to the person who died, you are bringing the most important thing of all.
_____ Background information (see p. 17-18).
Some Information Your Funeral Director Will Need
Following is some of the information your funeral director will need when you meet with him to arrange the funeral. Much of the personal data (such as social security number and place of birth) are required by law for the death certificate. Your funeral director will use some of the other information to submit the obituary to the newspapers of your choice. Jotting down some of the answers now may help you feel more prepared for the arrangement conference.
IMPORTANT: Did the person who died prearrange his or her funeral? If yes, please locate his or her instructions. Your funeral director may also be able to help you locate them.
Name of the person who died
Nickname(sometimes used in the obituary and the service)
Date of birth_________________________ Place of birth_______________
Age at death__________ Date of death_________ Place of death________
Cause or description of death_______________________________________
Social Security number (in Canada, Social Insurance Number) ___________________________________
Was the person who died a veteran? _____yes ____no
If yes, which branch of the armed services and when?________________ (Please bring his or her discharge papers if you can.)
Mother's name (inc, maiden name)____________________________________
Married to (inc. maiden name)_____________ When_______ Where________
Children's names and places of residence____________________________
How many grandchildren?_ Great-grandchildren?_ Great-grandchildren?_
Preceded in death by________________________________________________ ____________________________________________________________________
Survived by_________________________________________________________ ____________________________________________________________________
Has lived in ______________________ since___________________________
Former place(s) of residence________________________________________
Civic/church involvement____________________________________________ ____________________________________________________________________
Will the body be buried or cremated? _______________________________
If buried, where? (include cemetery and plot details if you have them) ____________________________________________________________________
If cremated, what will be done with the remains?____________________
Newspapers in which you'd like the obituary to appears (Don't forget out-of-town newspapers): ___________________________________________ ____________________________________________________________________ ____________________________________________________________________
Notes_______________________________________________________________ ____________________________________________________________________ ____________________________________________________________________
Choosing Someone to Lead the Ceremony
The person who leads the funeral service is usually the single most influential person in this process. So, you want to be sure that this person is open to meeting your unique family's needs and to personalizing the ceremony as much as possible.
Experienced funeral leaders (typically clergy) often have certain ways of doing things and may feel constrained in their ability to go outside the bounds of their liturgical traditions. Often, the faith's prayerbook and church rules and traditions dictate service options. However, there are some excellent clergy who will work with you to help you achieve a wonderfully personalized ceremony that is still in keeping with the religion's traditions.
If you or the person who died attended a church or other place of worship, a clergyperson from this church will likely be the logical choice to lead the funeral ceremony you are planning. Expressing your family's faith through a religious service at the time of a death is both fitting and healing.
But a religious service doesn't need to be an impersonal, cookie-cutter service straight out of the prayerbook. Talk to your clergyperson about appropriate ways of personalizing the ceremony. Perhaps special readings and music can be added. Maybe a DVD full of important memories can be shown. I urge both you and your clergyperson to be creative and free- thinking as you plan a fitting final tribute to the unique person who died.
Families often tell me that the eulogy (also called the remembrance or homily) was the most meaningful part of the funeral ceremony they held — but only if the eulogy was personalized. Keep in mind that the eulogy doesn't have to be delivered by the person leading the service. Only if your clergyperson knows your family well and can speak personally about the person who died is this appropriate. If the clergyperson didn't know the person who died, it's much more meaningful to have a family member or friend of the family give the eulogy. Or you might ask several people to speak. (For more on eulogies, see p. 32.)
If your family or the person who died are not members of a church or other place of worship, however, you may feel no connection to a certain clergyperson or body of faith. When this is the case, consider asking a family member, friend of the family, funeral director or other person with good public speaking skills to lead the ceremony. In fact, this is a growing trend across North America. Virtually anybody can be a funeral facilitator. No experience is necessary — just a desire to honor the person who died.
If you choose to go this route, you can create your own service by choosing fitting readings (religious or non-religious) and music. Be sure to include a eulogy or time of remembrance (see p. 32). I would also encourage you to use as many of the other elements of funeral ceremony as possible, such as the visitation, the procession, the committal, etc. (see p. 31.) These will help lend structure and ultimately give meaning to the service you hold.
Another option today is hiring a "celebrant" to lead the service. The celebrant movement is fairly new in the U.S. Celebrants create ceremonies to acknowledge life transitions, including funerals. There are approximately 400 "life cycle celebrants" in the U.S. today. Celebrants work with the family to choose music, readings, and words to honor their loved one's life. If you do choose to hire a celebrant, make sure he or she is a good fit for the needs of your family. Most celebrants are dedicated to what they do and will work with you to create a meaningful funeral.
If you don't have someone in mind to lead this funeral, talk to your funeral director. They should have a list of compassionate people who they have seen do an excellent job of helping families create meaningful funerals. Before reviewing this list with your funeral director, however, be sure to emphasize what kind of service you would like to have. Some funeral facilitators will only be comfortable with certain kinds of services.
What Kind of Service Will You Have?
You can choose from a variety of funeral service types and formats. Some people think that funerals must conform to "traditional" ways. Yet, let me remind you that there is no one right way to have a funeral. Just as grief has many dimensions and is experienced in different ways by different people, funerals will be unique also. A funeral should simply "fit" the person who died and the family and friends who survive him. Don't be afraid to be creative; this is a time for the honest expression of your most heartfelt values. Feel free to honor the person who died without following rigid rules or being worried about "what's usually done."
Before planning the specifics of the funeral, you may find it helpful to consider the goals of the service you will hold. You may even want to write them down.
Excerpted from Creating Meaningful Funeral Ceremonies by Alan D. Wolfelt. Copyright © 2011 Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.. Excerpted by permission of Center for Loss and Life Transition.
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